By PHILLIP BANTZ
CONCORD — Testimony ended Tuesday in the case of a Keene lawyer accused of lying to his paraplegic client and forcing her family to accept an insurance settlement so he could collect a large payment.
A hearing panel for the N.H. Supreme Court Attorney Discipline Office in Concord will decide whether Timothy A. O’Meara violated any rules of conduct in his dealings with the family of a Hampton woman whose spinal cord was severed in a May 2005 crash.
If the panel determines O’Meara violated any rules, it will decide what penalty he should face and make a recommendation to the Professional Conduct Committee. The panel and committee are both composed of lawyers and non-lawyers. Possible penalties O’Meara could face include reprimand, public censure, suspension or disbarment.
During the panel hearings, which began in October, disciplinary counsel Landya B. McCafferty presented the evidence against O’Meara, who was defended by Concord attorney Michael R. Callahan.
The family of Anita Conant hired O’Meara about a week after the crash that left her confined to a specialized wheelchair. Conant was attending her father’s funeral in Pennsylvania when a paving company’s dump truck slammed into the back of her car at about 55 mph while she was stopped at a red light.
The Conant family received $500,000 from the paving company, Lyons & Hohl Paving Inc., and $11 million from its insurer, The Cincinnati Insurance Companies. O’Meara wanted to collect at least $2 million in legal fees from the settlement, but the Conants contested his payment and a judge awarded him $1.6 million — the largest payment of his law career.
The settlement will not cover Conant’s daily medical expenses — it’s expected to cost more than $23 million to care for her during her lifetime, according to a certified life-care planner O’Meara hired while suing the paving company and its insurer.
O’Meara went after the $11.5 million settlement despite the life-care planner’s estimate for Conant so he could get paid quickly, McCafferty said.
Conant was positioned directly across the room from O’Meara during Tuesday’s hearing, watching him as he testified for about five hours, her ventilator unleashing an air-sucking whistle with each breath she took. Her husband, James, and their two sons, Sean and Todd, and daughter, Ashley, also attended the hearing.
The Conants say O’Meara settled their case without their authorization and pressured them to agree to pay him $2 million in legal fees at the last minute during a mediation hearing in Philadelphia. They also say he threatened to sue them for a third of any settlement they received and lied during testimony about his handling of the case after they contested his fees.
O’Meara contends that he had the authority to request an offer from the paving company, but not accept it. He says he never finalized the offer, which the Conants initially rejected but later accepted after hiring a new attorney. The Conants said they felt they had no other choice but to take the offer because of O’Meara’s dealings.
As for threatening to sue the Conants, O’Meara said he only mentioned during an emotionally charged meeting at their house months before the case was settled that litigation would be an option if they fired him. He denied making any threats.
The contract the Conants signed with O’Meara gave them the right to fire him at any time and pay him and other employees at his firm who worked on their case $275 per hour, McCafferty said.
But no one at O’Meara’s firm kept track of the hours that went into the Conants’ case, and O’Meara never told the Conants they could easily fire him because he knew he’d have trouble collecting any fees, McCafferty said.
O’Meara is also accused of backdating a letter to Robert Davis, an attorney for The Cincinnati Insurance Companies.
The letter notified Davis that the Conants were unwilling to accept the $11 million insurance settlement. It was written the same day Davis accepted O’Meara’s offer to settle the case for that amount, but dated four days earlier, McCafferty said.
O’Meara said the erroneous date on the letter was an innocent mistake.
This is not the first time O’Meara has been accused of changing the date on an official document, McCafferty said during Tuesday’s hearing.
In 2003, he was disciplined for lying to a judge about having the wrong date on a document he filed with the court while representing himself in a divorce and child custody case.
The conduct committee publicly censured O’Meara rather than suspending or disbarring him because he’d maintained a clean disciplinary record since joining the state bar in 1993.
While attending law school at Franklin Pierce University, O’Meara was suspended for a semester for cheating on a group project. He said he was the first person in his group to admit to cheating because he felt guilty.
The hearing panel is expected to decide by mid-December whether O’Meara violated any rules while representing the Conants.